Principal psychologist David Burroughs speaks with Helen Borger about workplace responses to critical incidents in the wake of the Sydney Lindt café siege and terrorist attacks on workplaces in France.

It goes without saying that being held hostage, having your life threatened and watching your colleagues and customers being shot and killed are traumatic events.

While many Australians are unlikely to find themselves in such a tragic situation, “up to 65 per cent of Australians are likely to experience or witness an event that threatens their life or safety or that of others around them”, says the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. This can include a serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war or torture, or natural disasters.

Initial assistance
It is critically important that the psychological health of workers and others affected by these situations is managed appropriately. “Some degree of practical psychological support and assistance needs to be available after these events, but it should not be mandatory to attend psychological debriefing sessions,” says CommuniCorp Group managing director and principal psychologist David Burroughs. “What is important is to communicate that there is support available and to monitor the ongoing mental wellbeing of those affected.”

Burroughs stresses that making workers attend compulsory psychological debriefing could make matters worse for them. In the first instance, the best approach is to offer psychological first aid.This involves letting workers know about the practical and emotional support that is available, providing information about what to expect after experiencing such an event, and monitoring the situation, he suggests.

Encouraging workers to seek support from family and friends and to use strategies they find helpful should also be part of the response—but keep in mind that what works for one person may not work for another, he says.

“Experiencing intrusive thoughts and irritability, not sleeping and being fearful are some of the normal reactions to a traumatic event. These feelings tend to settle in about two to three weeks … most people are remarkably resilient,” he adds.

Turn for the worse
However, if after two to three weeks these feelings continue and the person’s work, home life and social life start to suffer, more intervention is needed. Burroughs says it’s helpful if managers and other staff are trained in recognising signs of psychological stress in the workplace—signs that are normal and signs that are not.

The expectation is that if a manager or colleague recognises these signs, they will refer the person to a trained professional for further assistance. “Trauma is complex and not to be taken lightly. A qualified professional, such as a clinical psychologist, should provide treatment interventions,” Burroughs says.

Vicarious trauma
It’s important to remember that those not directly involved in the event may also be affected by the trauma. For example, Lindt café employees from worksites other than the Martin Place café may have experienced vicarious trauma.

“The Sydney café siege was profound—it was a new situation—and those not immediately involved may be affected; they may feel guilty, fearful and hypervigilant,” Burroughs explains.

First responders such as police and ambulance can also be affected.

The Lindt café siege in Martin Place, Sydney; the attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine, a printing company and a supermarket in France; the foiling of plans for a beheading in Martin Place; the shooting of a guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada, and the storming of the Canadian Parliament; plus other attacks around the globe—these have the potential to make all members of the community, whether they were directly affected or not, hyper-vigilant.

“Our sense of safety and stability, once [more assured in the past], may have changed forever,” says Burroughs.

Workplace policies
Burroughs says workplaces should have policies and procedures in place to manage critical incidents and other situations that have the potential to affect workers’ psychological health.

These should cover critical incident response; injury management; return to work; training for management and other staff so they can identify colleagues experiencing psychological stress; a good referral system so management and other staff can refer workers experiencing psychological stress to the appropriate treatment providers; and safe places to retreat to if an event occurs.

This story was written by Helen Borger  and first published in the March-April 2015 edition of National Safety. It is reproduced with the permission of the NSCA Foundation.

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